As Keon Johnson walked off the court for the final time in a Winthrop basketball uniform Thursday, he wasn’t really thinking big picture. But two things were obvious.
“The game was over,” he said afterward. “That was the end of my career.”
Butler improved to 9-0 all-time against lower-seeded teams in the NCAA Tournament, stiff-arming the Eagles 76-64 in the first round of the tournament. Key to that result was making it difficult for Johnson to move freely about the court. He finished with 17 points but really labored to turn the corner on Bulldogs freshman Kamar Baldwin, or on some of the chiseled post players that jumped out on defensive switches to block his path.
“Listen,” said Butler coach Chris Holtmann, “my staff just told me that I looked terrible and looked like I hadn’t slept in a week, which was nice of them. The reason was that kid, I mean, he is a load to guard.”
Johnson scored seven points in a row to get the Eagles within seven points with 13 minutes left in the game, but they never got any closer as the Bulldogs moved on to the second round.
“We had confidence the whole game,” said junior Xavier Cooks. “We’ve been in that position before and really thought we were going to come over the hump this time. Unfortunately we couldn’t get it done.”
Cooks led the 13th seed Eagles (26-7) with 23 points and six boards. Avery Woodson topped Butler (24-8) with 18 points, 15 of those coming in the first half.
Woodson canned a 3 with a defender smack in his face, before the Bulldogs steadily grew their lead at the free throw line with a 16-2 run late in the first half. The Bulldogs grew a 19-point lead (39-20), before the Eagles reeled them in with a 7-2 spurt before the half.
Cooks splashed in a corner 3 that ended a 5-minute stretch without a field goal. The Aussie, playing in front of his family who traveled from Down Under, then spun his man into the lane and dropped in a close-range shot as the halftime buzzer screeched, the Eagles facing a 41-27 deficit.
Johnson picked up his teammates early in the second half with a solo 7-0 run that got Winthrop within single digits of the Bulldogs, 48-41, with 13 minutes, 19 seconds left.
Winthrop had the ball coming out of a timeout and the Eagles ran a play for Johnson to get an open 3 in the right corner. It worked but the shot was too strong and the Bulldogs, who beat the defending national champs Villanova twice in the regular season, flexed their muscles with a 12-2 scoring burst to regain control of the contest. Point guard Tyler Lewis knifed the Eagles defense for a layup that prompted a timeout from Pat Kelsey, whose team suddenly trailed 60-43 with less than 9 minutes left.
Butler smashed Winthrop on the backboards, winning that category 42-27. The Bulldogs also wore down Winthrop with foul attrition, and while the Eagles largely stayed out of foul trouble with consistent substitutions, Butler made a living at the foul line. Holtmann’s team out-shot Winthrop 30-10 at the line, converting 20.
Woodson showed up at Wednesday’s press conference bundled in a parka, but his teammates understood.
“They know where I’m from,” said the Mississippi native. “I’m not used to this cold weather.”
Woodson was plenty warm against Winthrop. He missed both of 3-point attempts and was scoreless in Butler’s loss to Xavier in the Big East Tournament nearly two weeks prior, but hit five of his six 3s in the first half Thursday. The first three resulted from Winthrop botching defensive rotations, leaving the 41 percent 3-point shooter by himself. Woodson was in a groove by the time he nailed his fifth, completely ignoring Roderick Perkins’ outstretched arm directly in his face, slightly ironic given it was Perkins who hit five first half 3s during Winthrop’s Big South championship victory nearly two weeks ago.
No. 21 BUTLER 76, WINTHROP 64
WINTHROP (26-7): Perkins 4-6 3-4 13, Okeke 0-0 0-0 0, Johnson 7-19 0-0 17, B.Broman 1-4 0-0 2, Cooks 10-22 0-1 23, Ferguson 0-0 0-0 0, Hill 0-0 0-0 0, Davenport 0-1 1-2 1, Prescott 1-4 1-3 3, A.Broman 0-3 0-0 0, Pickett 2-3 0-0 5, Sadlon 0-0 0-0 0, Blake 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-62 5-10 64.
BUTLER (24-8): Wideman 2-4 1-3 5, Chrabascz 4-8 4-7 12, Woodson 6-10 0-0 18, Savage 2-3 2-2 6, Baldwin 3-7 0-0 7, Martin 3-8 3-4 10, Fowler 1-4 7-8 9, Lewis 3-5 3-6 9, Baddley 0-0 0-0 0, McDermott 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 24-49 20-30 76.
Halftime—Butler 41-27. 3-Point Goals—Winthrop 9-25 (Cooks 3-6, Johnson 3-10, Perkins 2-4, Pickett 1-1, A.Broman 0-2, B.Broman 0-2), Butler 8-19 (Woodson 6-10, Baldwin 1-3, Martin 1-4, Lewis 0-1, Fowler 0-1). Fouled Out—None. Rebounds—Winthrop 24 (Cooks 6), Butler 39 (Martin 8). Assists—Winthrop 12 (Johnson, B.Broman 3), Butler 15 (Lewis 8). Total Fouls—Winthrop 22, Butler 15.